Body Odor Through the Ages: A Brief History of Deodorant

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I got my first stick of deodorant as a preteen. It was Teen Spirit and made me smell like baby powder and berries. From the first swipe I loved it "“ it called me TEEN "“ and have continued to love this special product that keeps me so fresh and so clean. I wouldn't call it an obsession "“ I reserve that for my books and shoes "“ but these days I keep at least a dozen different kinds of deodorant and antiperspirants on hand. Unfortunately, not everyone shares my love of smelling good. On many occasions throughout history, things have gotten downright funky.

Being stinky and human evolution

When we lived in caves and had just figured out the whole standing upright thing, we were less concerned about body odor. Put simply, humans stunk. Anthropologists now believe that our funky selves helped keep us from being some predator's dinner. Our scent was so rank that the animal about to eat us would actually recoil in horror at the smell and would move on to eat something less repulsive. Now that's a defense mechanism.

Ancient Egyptians

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When they weren't building pyramids, the ancient Egyptians were working hard at masking their own stench. They invented the perfumed bath and would follow it up by applying a liberal amount of perfume to their underarms. Egyptians also tried using carob, incense, and even porridge as deodorant. Women would place globs of scented wax on their heads that would slowly melt throughout the day, spreading the pleasing scent as well as masking the not so pleasant. Messy, but effective.

Ancient Romans and Greeks

The ancient Greeks took a page from the Egyptians, constantly bathing and dousing themselves in perfume. Greek poet Homer once said that good hosts offered their guests baths and aromatic oils. Romans were so fanatical about smelling good that they not only took baths in perfume, they soaked their clothes in it, doused their horses in it, and even perfumed their household pets.

The Middle Ages

Things took a turn for the stank during the Middle Ages, when the church decided that being naked was bad. Even in the bath. So people all but stopped cleaning themselves. Those with the money for it tried to cover the stink by using perfume, a practice that continued well into the 19th century. Those without money just remained fragrant.

Mums the word

The first trademarked deodorant "“ Mum "“ came out in 1888. Created by an unknown Philadelphia inventor, Mum was a paste applied to the underarms. It was soon followed by Everdry, the first effective antiperspirant. Everdry was an aluminum chloride solution that was dabbed on with a cotton swab to less than desirable results. Everdry took forever to dry, was messy, and had a nasty habit of stinging the user and eating through clothes. But hey, at least you weren't sweating. In the mid 1950s, inspired by the ball point pen, the first roll on (Ban) was released. Ten years later, the first aerosol (Right Guard) launched a multi-billion dollar industry.

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[1971 Right Guard ad courtesy of my Rear in Sears.]

Today, about 95% of Americans use deodorant. Whether you wear roll on, use a crystal, take an internal deodorant pill (does that really work?) or even make your own home concoction, just know that the rest of us truly appreciate it.

Stefanie Fontanez is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. Her last story was about the plague.

February 21, 2008 - 3:46am
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